Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging analysis of biopolymer materials

Dr Matthew Wallace
Research Fellow 2017

Dr Matthew Wallace
University of East Anglia

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMR-I) techniques will be developed to gain unprecedented insights into the chemical and physical processes of plant-based soft materials used in healthcare and food applications. The techniques will overcome the limitations of conventional analytical approaches and accelerate the design of new materials and processes.

Plants are an exceptionally good source of materials for mankind. While raw materials such as wood have been used for millennia, only recently have we sought to modify these natural materials to our advantage. For example, alginate, a material extracted from seaweed, can be manufactured into jelly-like coatings for pharmaceuticals. These coatings ensure that the encapsulated drug molecules are protected from the harsh acidic environment of the stomach but are released into the intestine where required. In order to exploit such resources effectively, we need to be able to study the dissolution, solidification and chemical binding behaviour of these plant-based materials in detail.

Unlike synthetic materials, most plant-based materials and their derivatives are far from uniform in composition. Obtaining detailed information about local environments in these materials is challenging as most analytical techniques provide only an ‘average’ picture of the material/sample as a whole. Furthermore, many of these techniques require that the materials be studied under conditions of pressure, temperature or humidity far removed from the conditions where the material or process is actually applied. Much valuable information is thus lost or distorted by these conventional approaches.

"Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging techniques will be developed to study the dissolution, solidification and chemical binding behaviour of plant-based soft materials in unprecedented detail"

It is therefore desirable to develop new techniques to study the materials in a localised, totally non-invasive and in situ manner. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMR-I) allows for such an analysis; however, current NMR-I approaches offer only modest insight into plant-based materials and the technique remains in relative obscurity. This contrasts with non-localised (non-imaging) NMR, which has become the dominant spectroscopic tool to study the interactions between different chemical species. Under this fellowship, Matthew will develop and combine advanced NMR techniques with imaging approaches to create a powerful set of analytical tools for the localised study of plant-based materials. For example, by establishing concentration gradients of chemical species in the materials and analysing them using his imaging techniques, he will be able to understand how the materials dissolve in different environments in the body. By overcoming the severe limitations of conventional analytical approaches, Matthew’s methods will enable the informed design of new materials and processes for applications in the fields of healthcare and foods.